Murder of an African hero: Burkina Faso shocked, dismayed


OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso -- As on every Friday, the King of the Mossi tribe performed a colorful ceremony with roots in the 16th century, seemingly unperturbed by the news of President Thomas Sankara's violent death the previous day.

The Mogho Naba, 'Ruler of Mountains' and powerless king of a once mighty tribe, listened impassively as a minstrel sang his praise and that of 36 predecessors in the traditional pageant.


But outside the gates of his run-down palace, the streets of Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, were virtually deserted as the 'bush telegraph' spread the still unofficial news that the 'hero of the revolution' was shot in a bloody palace coup.

Thousands of Burkinabes flocked to the shabby Darnoue cemetery, just outside the capital, to see the spot where Sankara's body was hastily dumped at night and covered with a few spadefuls of soil.


A small sheet of paper, bearing the name of the 'Comrade Captain' and a pair of sport shoes half buried in the makeshift grave were all that remained of the leftist officer who led the impoverished country on its revolutionary course for the past four years.

The death of the 37-year old charismatic leader came as a great shock to the 7-million strong, peace-loving West African nation.

Its people admired the dynamic young officer, who had declared war on corruption and changed the name of the former French colony from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso -- 'Land of the Upright People.'

But despite their warmth for the guitar-playing leader, many believed a change in leadership was necessary and said Sankara had lost much of his initial support.

Virtually no one, however, wanted to see him dead.

'The people have not forgiven the ignoble death of Sankara and the subsequent soiling of his name,' said a civil servant.

'They did not forgive either the way he was buried -- a dog gets a more decent burial,' he said.

A Western diplomat in Ouagadougou compared Sankara's death to that of a traditional chief. 'People lost their sense of direction, even those who did not like him were sad at his death,' he said.


At the graveyard, one of the mourners, 20-year-old Jean Bosco Baser said, 'When I first heard of the death, I thought, 'it is not possible.' I did not know what to do.'

Even the new leftwing president, Sankara's boyhood friend and top aide, expressed grief at the death of the man he called 'a mistaken revolutionary comrade.'

But Capt. Blaise Campaore, who denied being implicated in the coup and said Sankara was killed by palace guards, also had harsh words for the late president, his 'best friend'

Soon after he 'accepted' the presidency, Campaore accused Sankara of leading his country in an 'adventurous and dangerous' manner, of using 'menaces, intimidation and intrigue' to stay in power, and of promoting his own image.

Sankara was widely known for his flamboyant style, meeting diplomats under a mango tree, ordering his people to wear a homespun national dress and instituting 'voluntary' collective labor.

He sold off the government's Mercedes, drove a small French car, often played basketball with his friends and earned a captain's pay of $664 a month.

He sought to popularize his government by creating Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution to act as watchdogs of the people and promote national policies.


His military chief, Maj. Jean-Baptiste Lingani, said the CDRs were formed to 'defend the revolution in all its forms, unmask and denounce the people's enemies, the reactionaries and the counter-revolutionaries within the army.'

Sankara often insisted real decision-making lay with the people, who could even prove their leader wrong. When popular assemblies rejected Sankara's plans for cooperative farming and school reforms in 1985, the 'comrade-president' accepted their decision and shelved the idea.

But he angered some of his erstwhile supporters on several occasions when he arrested trade union leaders and other political figures.

Campaore claimed Sankara had planned to arrest some of his closest collaborators -- including Campaore himself -- on the day he was killed.

The new strongman said the time had come to become 'more realistic' and put an end to what he called the 'folklore' of Sankara's rule.

Since the coup, the state-owned radio has regularly broadcast calls for the 'rectification of the revolution.'

The new leader, who wears the same battle fatigues and holstered pistol his predecessor liked to sport, pledged to continue the revolution started when Sankara took power in August 1983.

Campaore spoke of the need to combat 'imperialism, reaction, counter-revolution and opportunism,' and more simply to 'work hard.'


But despite the slogans on the walls of the capital -- one of which proclaims that 'a soldier with no political education is a potential criminal' -- there is little evidence of a great national struggle against capitalism.

At rush hour, the city is invaded by thousands of mopeds imported from France, a country that also provides the expensive brandies served in the foreign-owned hotels and the glossy 'girlie' magazines sold in the streets.

'This is not a country of dedicated Communists. They are nationalists fighting exploitation,' said a Western diplomat.

On the edge of the Sahara, landlocked, with inadequate water supplies and highly eroded landscape, Burkina Faso relies largely on foreign aid and trade for its existence.

The country imports some $120 million worth of French goods every year. Its exports to France are valued at $37 million. The former colonial power supplies about half ofthe country's $250 million foreign aid.

Sankara described the aim of the revolution as giving Burkinabes food, drink, clothing, health, education and shelter, and said this would largely be done by improving farming methods to increase self-sufficiency.

He recently introduced new regulations to attract foreign investors to Burkina -- without much success.

Campaore said he also would like to see more foreign capital in the tropical country and that 'capitalists' were welcome.


'If their investments also serve the interests of the people, we have absolutely no objection to their presence,' he said.

Sankara's revolution, totally lacking any coherent economic policy, had done little to achieve a better life, his sucessors said.

Throughout the country, some 350 health centers, usually small mud-and-wattle huts with red crosses painted on the door, were built by villagers. But virtually all of them stand empty, with no staff and no drugs.

'Sankara did create a revolution and ingrained the idea the country needed to help itself and not only beg for assistance,' said a foreign diplomat.

'He did work day and night, but he was becoming increasingly erratic. He had no policy to speak of,' he said.

Meanwhile, the foreign community in Ouagadougou has largely welcomed the change in government.

At the university, student leaders too were prompt in expressing their support of the new, young officer-president. The leader of the national students union lashed out on radio at Congolese students who criticized Campaore.

'Let's hope there'll soon be rectification in (the Congolese capital of) Brazzaville,' he said.

Campaore is viewed as more realistic than his predecessor, though he himself was hesitant at the use of the word 'moderate.'


'When it comes to defending the interests of my people, I shall never be moderate,' said the French-trained paratrooper.

'Marxist,' however, is a label he rejects. He prefered to call himself 'a revolutionary who loves his people and fights all forms of exploitation.'

Burkinabes -- who have lived through five coups since independence in 1960 -- were invited to attend mass meetings to hear of the changes that would take place under Campaore. But in many villages and urban centers, only a handful turned up.

Back at the royal palace, an aide to the Mogho Naba said the tribal king would continue to hold a traditional ceremony every Friday.

'That is our custom,' he said. 'It does not change.' adv for release Sunday, Nov.

Latest Headlines